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Has the One-Child Policy Contributed to the Missing Women Phenomenon in China?
University Study Course: Societies in Transformation India and China

Prof. Dr. Corinna Unger Prof. Dr. Jrg Himmelreich Date of Submission: December 23, 2011 Word Count: 3,298 words

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright Jacobs University Bremen Matriculation No.: 20329378

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

Over the past few decades, an estimated 163 million women have vanished from East and South Asia.1 These women are commonly referred to as missing women, a term coined by Sen Amartya to express the decit of women in substantial parts of Asia and North Africa.2 The term missing women and the use of the word vanish, however, although provocative does not really portray the situation aptly as these words conjure up an image of something or someone who was once there but is now nowhere to be found. Reality, however, is much more tragic and the use of these words seem somewhat disparaging in that these women have not merely vanished or gone missing the real tragedy is that these women have not lived up to their full potential due to underreporting or have not lived at all due to selective abortion and infanticide. This phenomenon is disconcerting, especially considering that in this day and age where womens lives have supposedly changed dramatically over the past quarter century for the better. The existence of this phenomenon today, in 2011, where more girls and women are literate than ever before 3 and where women make up over 40% of the global labor force 4 is nothing short of embarrassing. This systematic and blatant discrimination against women, as manifested in the missing women phenomenon, must be investigated in order for this phenomenon to be mitigated and eventually, terminated. Various academes have cited that Chinas highly conteversial, anti-natal, One-Child Family Policy as the one of the key causes of this phenomenon.5, 6 , 7 In order to adequately judge the contribution of Chinas One-Child Family Policy to the missing women phenomenon, the status and quantication of missing women in China today must rst be addressed. After which, the Chinas One-Child policy will be dened and analysed based on its effect on the survival of women by looking at the statistical data and the technological advances before and after the implementation of the
Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), 6.
1 2

Amartya Sen, Missing women: social inequality outweighs womens survival advantage in Asia and North Africa, British Medical Journal 304, no. 6827 (1992): 587. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), World Trade Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development (Washington D.C.: The World Bank, 2011), xiii.
3 4 5


Edwin H. Bulte, Nico Heerink and Xiaobo Zhang, Chinas One-Child Policy and the Mystery of Missing Women: Ethnic Minorities and Male-Biased Sex Ratios, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 72, no. 1 (2010): 21. Lennart Bogg, Family Planning in China: Out of Control?, American Journal of Public Health 88, no. 4 (1998): 651.
6 7

Gordon Anderson and Teng Wah Leo, Child Poverty, Investment in Children and Generational Mobility: The Short and Long Term Wellbeing of Children in Urban China after the One Child Policy, Review of Income and Wealth 55, no. 1 (2009): 607.

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

aforementioned policy. Finally, the overall effect of the one-child policy on the missing women phenomenon will be assessed in light of other alrernative causes. It is essential that one must study this development for gender equality and womens empowerment are supposedly the heart of development,8 without these being addressed, effective and sustainable economic and human development cannot be achieved. 9

Missing Women in China Today and its Demographic Impact

According to the World Banks most recent annual report on gender equality and development, 40% of the worlds missing women were missing at birth and China accounts for almost 80% of this.10 These women are missing in the sense that either their actual existence had been denied by society due to under-reporting of female births11 or their potential existence had been eliminated through sex-selective abortion, infanticide or inadequate nutrition during infancy. 12 Since the actual number of women missing is quite hard to calculate, the missing women are calculated through comparisons of sex ratio at birth (SRB) in comparable populations with relatively less or no gender discrimination.13 Given the number number of missing women in China, it is not surprising that this phenomenon has signicantly altered the sex distribution in Chinese society and has resulted into China having the highest SRB in the world. Based on the latest census in 2010, Chinas SRB was at 1.1808 14 with some provinces having a SRB as high as 1.38.15 This means that, according to the latest census, for every 100 registered female births, there are 118 registered male births. Although this is slightly better than the sex ratio recorded in 2009, which pegged

8 9

IBRD, World Development Report 2012, xiv.

David Hung Chiat Chen, Gender Equality and Economic Development: The Role for Information and CommunicationTechnologies World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3285 (Washington D.C.: The World Bank, 2004), 3, accessed on December 10, 2011,
10 11 12

IBRD, World Development Report 2012, 120-122. Ibid., 78.

Maria Giovanna Merli and Adrian E. Raftery, Are Births Underreported in Rural China? Manipulation of Statistical Records in response to Chinas Population Policies, Demography 37, no. 1 (2000), 109, accessed on December 10, 2011, Anoushe Chahnazarian, Determinants of the Sex Ratio at Birth: Review of Recent Literature, Abstract, Social Biology 35, no. 3-4 (1988), accessed on December 10, 2011, doi: 10.1080/19485565.1988.9988703.

Xinhua News Agency, China faces increasing gender ratio, Xinhuanet, August 9, 2011, http://
14 15

Erwin Bulte, Nico Heerink and Xiaobo Zhang, Chinas One-Child Policy and the Mystery of Missing: Ethnic Minorities and Male-Biased Sex Ratios, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 62, no. 1 (2011), doi: 10.1111/j. 1468-0084.2010.00601.x

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

the SRB at 1.1945,16 China still has a very long way to go since this gure is still far above the internationally accepted normal SRB which ranges from 1.03 to 1.07 in industrialised countries.17 This gender disparity has brought about major social and demographic ramications that will surely have a lasting effect to Chinas population dynamics. One of the most prevalent and pressing effects of this demographic shift is the marriage market squeeze in Chinese society. A marriage market squeeze happens when the number of marriageable males and females diverge substantially in that it makes it difcult for some perople to nd a spouse according to current prevailing criteria.18 At present, it is estimated that 15 million Chinese bachelors are unable to nd a partner due to the shortage of women.19 Given that this gure is in itself already lamentable, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates this gure to rise signicantly within the next few years, bringing the number to around 40 million Chinese men by 2020.20 Due to the sheer magnitude of this marriage squeeze, it has been made clear that mere immigration of women for marriage cannot solve the problem21 and that other options must be considered to prevent further change in Chinas demography. Moreover, this problem is not only constricted to demographic affairs but have also affected Chinese society as a whole in that there have been various studies that the propensity to cause social disruption is positively correlated to the number of surplus men a country has.22 Another claimed effect of this missing women phenomenon is the increase of human trafcking for marriage, labor and prostitution services. The scarcity of women has produced a gender imbalance, which has now allegedly led to men purchasing trafcked women for marriage. At present, domestic trafcking is the most signicant problem in China with an

16 17


Department of Population, Social, Science and Technology (DPSST), Women and Men in China: Facts and Figures (Beijing: National Bureau of Statistics, 2004), 18.

Jiang Quanbao, Isabelle Attan, Li Shuzhuo and Marcus W. Feldman, Son Preference and the Marriage Squeeze in China: An Integrated Analysis of First Marriage and the Remarriage Market, in Watering the Neighbours Garden: The Growing Demographic Female Decit in Asia, ed. Isabell Attan and Christophe Z. Guilmoto (Paris: Committee for International Cooperation in National Research in Demography, 2007), 347.
19 20

Paul Pillar, Thirty Million Chinese Bachelors, The National Interest, November 2, 2011.

Justin McCurry and Rebecca Allison, 40 Million Banchelors and No Women The Birth of a New Problem for China, The Guardian, March 9, 2004. David Courtright, Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996), 202.
21 22 Valerie

M. Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, A Surplus of Men, A Decit of Peace: Security and Sex Ratios in Asias Largest States, International Seurity 26, no. 4 (2002), 15.

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

estimated 150 million victims being trafcked internally each year.23 In addition to this, human trafcking is also rapidly expanding and becoming a more lucrative international business as evidenced by the resurgence of smuggled women from Laos, Vietnam and Laos, among other Asian countries.24 Not only is human trafcking a serious human rights violation, it also highlights the status of women in Chinese society in light of the missing women phenomenon. The agrant gender discrimination and the perrenial objectication of women shows that despite attempts by the Chinese government to promote gender equality, 25 the cultural barrier of gender still remains. These are only some of the most prevalent ramications of the missing women phenomenon. As one can see, gross violations of basic human rights have come to pass due to this demographic development and many academes are quick to blame Chinas one-child policy as the primary reason for the skewed SRB as it signicantly lowered the fertility rates in the country. Although this claim is seemingly logical, it doesnt account for missing women in other countries as well as the extremely high SRB before the implementation of the aforementioned policy. This paper will contend that although an exacerbating factor, the onechild policy is not the primary reason behind the skewed SRB. Instead, the primary reasons are more intangible in that it is more of a cultural and structural problem that has been reinforced and aggravated by the availability of reliable and affordable technology.26, 27

China and Gender Equality Before and After the One-Child Policy
The One-Child Policy is a set of regulations with restrictions on family size, and the timing of marriage and child rearing. Family planning committees at provincial and county levels devise local strategies for attaining overall policy targets. Thus, there is variation in the formulation, implementation and enforcement of the policy.28 This policy was introduced in 1978 and despite the unambiguous nature of its name, the one-child policy does not actually stipulate that all households can only have one child. This restriction applies only to urban residents and
Department of State, Trafcking in Persons Report 80 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of State Publication, 2011), 121.
23 24 25

Agence France-Presse, Rise in Asian women trafcked into China, The China Post, December 4, 2011.

Gender Equality and Womens Development in China, Permanent Mission of the Peoples Republic of China to the United Nations Ofce at Geneva and other International Organizations in Switzerland, accessed December 12, 2011. Nicholas Eberstadt, Mis-planned Parenthood: The Unintended Consequences of Chinas One-Child Policy, AEI Articles (1999), 87.

Tyrene White, Chinas Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the Peoples Republic, 1949-2005 (London: Cornell University Press, 2006), 206.
27 28

Bulte et al., Chinas One Child Policy, 25.

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

government employees, albeit with some exemptions. It also generally does not include rural couples, ethnic minorities and parents without siblings themselves. The main criticisms of this policy that is often pointed out by academes is its stimulus to discrimination against females, who may be aborted, abandoned, or unregistered.29 Essentially, they argue that this policy promotes and propagates gender inequality. Although the assertion that the policy promotes and propagates gender inequality is defendable, to an extent. The former claim of this policy being the primary reason behind the skewed SRB is quite unfounded. China has had to deal with the problem of gender inequality and son preference way before the One-Child Policy was intoduced. Chinas largely patrilineal and patriarchal society further pushed the importance of male children as, historically, marriage was almost always followed by patrilocal residence and patrilineal heirs. Parents supported sons by giving them houses and land, and sons supported parents in old age. These local understandings were the products of longstanding patrilineal tradition in most of China and was institutionally supported up to the mid-twentieth century by organised lineages and clans. Due to these traditions, sons were crucial when it came to matters of transactions, property and village membership. This tendency to prefer males over females is adequately apparent in Figure 1, where Chinas SRB is almost always above the international average SRB. Seeing that it has been argued that the one-child policy is the primary reason behind the rigid sex selection which has led to a heavily skewed SRB, this argument would only be supported by the data if the SRB were highest directly after the implementation of the the one-child
9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 -1 99 20 00 -1 91 -1 92 -1 93 -1 94 -1 95 -1 96 -1 97 -1 98 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 -2 00 9

Figure 1. Sex Ratio At Birth for China


10 year average, 1910-2009

Sex Ratio at Birth



1.125 International Average SRB









Time Period
Source: Data for 1910-1979 from Yun Zhou and Zhenzhen Zheng, Sex Ratio of Reported Births between 1910 and 1969 in China (unpublished conference paper, Female Decit in Asia: Trends and Perspectives, Singapore, 2005). Data for 1980-2009 from DPSST, Women and Men in China: Facts and Figures.


Penny Kane and Ching Choi, Chinas one child family policy, British Medical Journal 319, no. 7215 (1999), 992.


Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

policy. With the data at hand, however, it is evident that the highest average SRB of 1.44 occured in the years before the implementation of the one-child policy. Admittedly, there has been slight incremental increases after the implementation of the policy. However, these increases are too minimal when one sees the overarching development of Chinas SRB throughout the years. The development of Chinas SRB somewhat sheds light to Chinas unique history. The extremely high SRB in the early 20th century shows the status of women in a largely patrilineal society where infanticide and the abandonment of female children was prevalent, even in the royal families of the Qing dynasty.30 The end of the Qing dynasty corresponded with the peak of the SRB (where data in Figure 1 starts) presumably due to the instability that marked the end of the imperial area as well as the beginning of the Warlord era, where China was plagued with wars and famine which essentially compelled families to allocate their limited resources to their sons instead of their daughters. 31 This seems to have resulted in higher than normal mortality of female children. One can see, however, the SRB getting closer to the international average as the Communist Party slowly consolidates power in China. Gender bias and sexual imbalance are slowly becoming mitigated and while traditional values an instutions continued to shape Chinese society, the Mao era saw the erosion of the kinship-based patriarchal social order and efforts to raise womens social-economic status.32 As a result, infanticide and the abandonment of female children decreased signicantly as evidenced by the low SRB. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a noticable increase in Chinas average SRB. The causes behind these are largely debateable and to an extent, it can be argued, however, that the one-child policy reinforced the pre-existing socio-cultural preference for males.33 Although the one-child policy is one of the reasons behind the gender inequality in China, it is important to point out that it is far from being the primary reason. Although present, the link between the government policy and gender inequality should not be overemphasised as it cannot provide a coherent explanation on the consistent rise in SRB since the 1980s despite the increasingly exible ofcial government policies in allowing exemptions to the one-child rule. The fact that Guangdong and Hainan provinces have the highest SRBs, 1.38 and 1.35


Quanbiao Jiang, Marcus W. Feldman and Xiaoyi Jin, Estimation of the Number of Missing Females in China: 1900-2000, Chinese Journal of Population Science 4 (2005), 16.

Ibid, 2.

Huang and Dali L. Yang, Chinas Unbalanced Sex Ratios: Politics and Policy Response, The Chinese Historical Review 13, no. 1 (2006), 3.
32 Yanzhong 33

Susan Greenhalgh and Jiali Li, Engendering reproductive policy and practice in peasant China: For a feminist demography of reproduction. Signs 20, no. 3 (1995), 601-641.

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

respectively, despite having relatively lenient population policies is also quite puzzling.34 Furthermore, the same missing women phenomenon can be observed in some countries that have not implemented a Chinese-style population control policy such as India, South Korea and Taiwan. 35 A more cogent explanation for the consistent rise of SRB in all these nations (China, India, South Korea and Taiwan) throughout the past years is the availability and accessibility of technology capable of fetal sex identication coupled with the pre-existing preference for males. The mass production of ultrasound equipment, designed for a variety of diagnostic purposes, began in early 1980s. 36 In China alone, thirteen thousand ultrasound machines were in use in hospitals and clinics by 1987 and by early 1990s, all county hospitals and clinics had ultrasound machines capable of fetal sex identication.37 This technology allowed couples to select the sex of their baby and enabled them to use this information toward gender selective abortion which is extremely detrimental especially in societies where there is a strong preference for male babies. Although it is apparent that this medical technology did not create this problem (since son preference already existed), it is clear that it does enable it.

China has long been famous for having the worlds largest population and for taking harsh measures to restrain its growth. As such, the one-child policy is an extremely divisive policy in that although people are extremely appalled by its coercive nature, one cannot deny that China needed to do something to keep its vast numbers in check. In light of the missing women phenomenon, Chinas controversial policy has been criticised and condemned for inherently promoting and propagating gender inequality by being a stimulus to discrimination against females, who may be aborted, abandoned, or unregistered. As such, it has also been argued that the aforementioned policy is the primary reason behind the skewed SRB. Based on the given historical background, data and subsequent analysis, however, it seems quite evident that the relationship between SRB and the one-child policy is not really clear-cut. While there is undoubtedly some kind of relationship between government policy and SRB, a simple relaxation of birth control is seemingly unlikely to reverse the current trend of rising
Serious birth gender imbalance inicts 9 Chinese Regions, Peoples Daily Online, August 25, 2004, http://
34 35

Gu Baochang and Krishna Roy, Sex Ratio at Birth in China, With Reference to Other Areas in East Asia: What We Know, Asia-Pacic Population Journal 10, no. 3 (1995), 59.
36 37

White, Chinas Longest Campaign, 202. Ibid.

Katherine Christine Monteclar-Woolbright USC: Societies in Transformation India and China

SRB. Since the relationship between SRB and the one-child policy was quite inconclusive, other alternative causes were explored such as the rise of medical technology that enables one to identify the sex of the fetus. Although a promising explanation, more research denitely has to be done in this area in order to gain a more thorough understanding of its connection to skewed SRBs. Whether it be the one-child policy, the rise of medical technology or a mixture of both, it is clear that these missing women phenomenon would not have manifested if the cultural problem of gender inequality and sexual superiority were non-existent. Instead of putting all of ones energy into looking for the possible causes of the missing women phenomenon, maybe it would be more helpful to look at ways to empower women and promote gender equality so that one can ensure that this phenomenon will cease to exist.